Friday, November 14, 2008

Anatomy of an Investigation: "The Electronic Wasteland"

Watch CBS Videos Online

After months of work, CBS's 60 Minutes aired this story on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2008. Producer Solly Granatstein and correspondent Scott Pelly found that some American companies who advertise safe collection and recyling of hazardous e-waste were actually dumping those products in developing nations whose people often work at great risk to salvage valuable but toxic metals from the waste.

The story built on an investigation done last summer by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. GAO officials posing as foreign buyers found eager sellers among 43 American companies trying to circument EPA regulations in the disposal of e-waste.

CBS reporters found themselves under surveillance when they followed a container of such waste from its collection in Colorado to its eventual home in a badly polluted Chinese community near Hong Kong.

Here's a link to a print version of the story.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"unSpun" Assignments

The Presentation Schedule

Nov. 24:

Chapter One - From Snake Oil to Emu Oil, Chris Arneson

Chapter Two - Bridesmaid's Bad Breath, Megan McLean and Mike Gerrity

Chapter Three - Tall Coffees and Assault Weapons, Karen Garcia and Jessica Whalen

Dec. 1:

Chapter Four - UFO Cults and Us, Danielle deBouver and Andrew Dusek

Chapter Five - Facts Can Save Your Life, Allison Maier and Heather Roussi

Chapter Six - The Great Crow Fallacy, Brenna Braaten and Ashley Klein

Dec. 3

Chapter Seven - Osama, Ollie and Al, Matt McLeod and Erin Gallagher

Chapter Eight - Was Clarence Darrow a Creationist?, Charles Pulliam

Monday, October 27, 2008

Issues for Justice Reporters

BEAT COVERAGE: Poynter, Power Reporting, Covering Crime and Justice

PROJECTS: Wrongful convictions, "Wasted in Wisconsin," Pro Publica, "Forensics Under the Microscope"

ETHICS: Covering Crime and Justice, At the Virginia Pilot; SPJ case studies

Local Justice Resources

State and Local Resources

Montana law gives you access to:

Daily incident reports – They’re often skimpy and filled with code. But they’re a start.

Daily arrest reports – Name, DOB, charge.

Jail logs – Who’s in jail, arresting agency.

Other Local and State Web resources

Missoula Police Department

Missoula County Sheriff’s Department

Missoula County Detention Facility.

Montana’s court system. Find links to various branches and resources of Montana’s judicial system, from the state Supreme Court down to Municipal and Justice of the Peace courts.

Montana’s laws. It’s all here, but Title 45 is the state criminal code. You’ll find descriptions of different crimes and any sentencing guidelines.

Montana Supreme Court decisions. You can read them yourself.

Montana State Law Library. Look up old court decisions. Contacts here can help you research a case.

Montana Department of Justice. We elected a state attorney general, who acts as Montana’s top prosecutor. He also represents the state in lawsuits. His department covers everything from law enforcement and forensics (State Crime Lab) to gambling regulation. It also keeps state crime stats.

Montana Department of Corrections. Officials here track everyone convicted of felonies. They have databases of violent and sexual offenders and everyone currently in the state prison system.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Learning about the Law

Here's a guide to Montana courts and answers to questions about the state's legal system. Here's a guide to legal words phrases. Here are some you need to know from the start:

-Actual malice, Affadavit, Answer, Appeal, Arraignment
-Bail/Bond, Bankruptcy, Beyond a reasonable doubt
-Circumstantial evidence, Class action suit, Complaint, Compensatory damages, Concurrent sentences, Consecutive sentences, Cross examination
-Damages, Defamation, Double jeopardy
-Grand jury
-Habeas corpus, Hung jury
-Indictment, Information
-Liability, Libel
-Parole, Plaintiff, Probation, Preliminary hearing, Preponderance of the evidence, Probable cause, Punitive damages
-Settlement, Statute of Limitations, Subpoena
-Voir dire

Friday, October 17, 2008

We're Going to Court Monday

That's right. Let's meet in the second-floor lobby of the Missoula County Courthouse at 2:15 sharp. We'll sit in on a Justice Court session, the honorable Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech presiding.

We'll report on a story for a midnight deadline, so bring your notebooks, recorders and pens. We'll also make a quick visit to the Clerk of District Court's office, the honorable Chris Arneson guiding.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Get Ready for Monday's Council Meeting

Take a look at the City Council’s agenda for tomorrow night. Remember, we’re covering stories, not meetings, so pick a couple issues that you think might be worthy of covering and be prepared to talk about them in class. In other words, do some background work.

Also, I’m changing the assignments for the week. Besides Monday’s council story, I’ll ask you to polish your candidate interview story, based on my comments. Be working on the story from your beat about the election, but we’ll make that due early next week.

See you in class.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Revealing Questions for Candidates

Here are some of my ideas. Add your own as comments.

1. Who are your heroes? Why?
2. Have you ever voted for someone in the other party? Who and why?
3. What advice does you spouse give you about campaigning?
4. How would you rate the press coverage in this campaign?
5. What's the strangest suggestion you've received from consituents?
6. What's the hardest job you've ever done?
7. What's the best book you've ever read?
8. What's the best advice you've ever been given?

Covering Elections: The Basics

Here's a list of things journalists should consider when they cover elections.

1. Background your candidates -- We've already talked about this, but it's important. Who are these folks? Who are their friends and supporters? Who is endorsing them? Who is giving them money? What's their history? Where do their private and public histories intersect?

2. Illuminate candidates' stands on the issues -- You'll get some of this by covering debates, forums, press confernces, speeches, etc. It's important not only to cover what they say, but to verify the accuracy of it. Track their comments on an issue over time to see if they changing the tune. Are they pandering to the crowd? What issues are they ignoring? Are voters' opinions on issues being solicited? In call of this, be sure to put the issues in context. How does this affect my readers?

3. Cover the "horse race" -- The press overdoes this, partly because it's easy, but it still matters. Pay attention to the polls (Are they credible? Valid statiscially?). What strategies and tactics are the candidates using? How effective is a candidate at organizing, raising money, etc. How is the electorate changing? How are registration and voting laws affecting the process? Look for oddities in the collection and counting of votes? Is the process fair?

Better Election Coverage

Some questions election reporters should ask themselves:

1. Are we covering the "horse race" (stories about polls, campaign tactics, personnel) at the expense of issues?
2. Are we asking questions voters care about?
3. Who is going uncovered?
4. What issues are going undebated?
5. Are we trying to get to the truth of campaign allegations?
6. Are we giving voters and candidates an opportunity to respond?

Good Election Fact-Checking Sites -- Another good site sponsored the St. Petersburg Tims and Congressinal Quarterly. Check out the "Truth-o-Meter" and the new "Flip-o-Meter." -- Probably the best all-around election fact-checking site. It succeds in being a nonpartisan resource that moves quickly to sift the truth from fiction from national campaigns.

How to "Truth Check" a Campaign Ad

Stories sifting fact from fantasy in campaign ads are becoming more frequent as checking them becomes easier to do. Here are some examples in print and broadcast.

Some pointers for doing your own 'Truth Check' story:

1. Insist that candidates provide sources to back up their advertising allegations. Most will. In fact, check the sponsor's Web site first. If they refuse to offer proof, you've got a story they're really going to hate.

2. Most often, candidates will point to their opponents' voting records. Look up the bills and votes yourself. Don't rely on their opponents' "spin." If we're talking about state legislation, go to the Montana's Legislature's site. Click on "bills" for the right session. You can search by bill number, sponsor or general topic. It's easy to verify a vote or see what a bill would do, but often the bill's costs are the issue, so be sure to look at the "fiscal note," which is the state's best guess at costs for taxpapers. If we're talking about federal legislation, go to the Library of Congress' Web site.

3. After you've seen the facts, bounce your finding off of both candidates or their people. You can include their reaction in your story. They may offer you more context or sources, too.

Some pitfalls:

A. Make sure you're reporting a candidate's final vote on the issue at hand. Legislators may vote many times on a single bill: at the committee stage, on amendments to a bill and finally on the bill as amended. Here's an example: In 1997, state Sen. Mike Taylor initially voted to deregulate the wholesale price of electricity, a highly controversial idea in Montana. But he changed his mind on the third and final vote, making him one of the few Republicans to ultimately reject the idea. He's running this year for the state's Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

B. The questions legislators face are not always black and white. For example, a legislator could support a sale tax as an additional tax or as a substitue for eliminating or cutting other taxes. The effect on taxpayers could vary enormously.

C. Beware of singling out a lawmaker's vote as his or her only vote on some controversial issue. Often Democrats and Republicans will offer similar solutions to some problem. A Republican legislator who votes against a Democratic version may vote for his party's solution instead.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Contact Info for Legislative Candidates

Those of you looking for contact information on Montana legislative candidates can find it here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Paper Trail: A Guide to Backgrounding People

You'll be surprised at what you can find that's readily available: news clips, business directories, phone and criss-cross directors. You'll find much of that and more online from your local university library. Google, Lexis-Nexis, social networking sites -- of that can help, but don't overlook public records when you're investigating an individual. Not all of them are online, but many are.

Here are some public records that may prove helpful:

BIRTH RECORDS (Montana makes them available 30 years after a birth.)

SCHOOL RECORDS (Dates attended, degrees conferred, theses written, dissertations. No grades. No school disciplinary action.)

PROPERTY RECORDS (Counties have this stuff: Who owns what, property assessments, taxes paid and unpaid, improvements, even a map.)

MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE RECORDS (You can see a marriage license but not the application. Divorces are civil actions.)

BANKRUPTCIES (Individuals have to file with a U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Lots of detail here about what people own and owe.)

DRIVERS' LICENSES, OTHER LICENSES (Hunting, fishing, etc. You may not get to see the application but you should be able to find out if a person is licensed for these activities. It will cost you a couple of bucks, but you can check with the Montana Highway Patrol to see if someone has speeding tickets.)

PROFESSIONAL LICENSES (Most states keep these records for doctors, nurses, lawyers, public school teachers, pilots, cosmetologists -- anyone who needs a license to do their job. You can find out what the qualifications are for different jobs, or if someone is, in fact, licensed.)

COURT RECORDS (Criminal and civil histories -- convictions, judgments, complaints, depositions, affadavits for probable cause, affadavits for warrants, etc. Sometimes private records -- health, income, etc -- will show in a civil or criminal court case if they are offered in evidence. Much of this is on file at the court house, although some things are online. Check out Missoula District Court dockets.)

PRISON RECORDS (Who's there? Why? In Montana, you can find that stuff on CONWEB. Yep. That's what they call it.)

MILITARY RECORDS (It's not online, and it takes a while, but you can verify of service, rank, medals and commendations.)

CONCEALED WEAPONS PERMITS (Check with the Sheriff's Department.)

LENDING INFORMATION (UCC filings document some loans. Check with the county clerk and recorder, Secretary of State.)

PUBLIC EMPLOYEE SALARIES (Check with the human services officer in the agency that employs them.)

VOTER REGISTRATION INFO (You can find out if someone voted but not how they voted.)

VOTING RECORDS (Local government minutes, legislative and congressional journals, vote-tracking sites, Project Vote Smart, etc.)

CAMPAIGN CASH (Check the Federal Election Commission's database for donations to candidates for federal office. Another place to go for federal campaign cash is . For campaign finance infomation on local legislators, check with the county election officials. For statewide candidates, cheick with the Montana's Commissioner of Political Practices. For contributions from previous Montana election cycles, check


For state-by-state laws on access to public records, check with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.


Take the Net Tour offered by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Monday Sept. 15 Assignments

Remember that we'll meet Monday at the regular time BUT in Room 316 to hear from Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Maurice Possley. Please see his work that I linked to on the Sept. 4 post. BRING THREE QUESTIONS, and I'll expect to hear you ask them.

Also, I'm giving you your choice Monday night:

1. You can cover the City Council meeting for a midnight deadline. (Planning and zoning issues)

Or ...

2.You can cover the gubernatorial debate on campus for the same deadline. That event starts at 7 p.m. in the Montana Theatre, PAR/TV Center. Candidates Republican Roy Brown, Democrat Brian Schweitzer and Libertarian Stan Jones will be there. Will you?

If you choose the debate, focus your story on the exhanges that show their differences on the issues and in style. Hit the highlights. Don't speculate on who won or lost, but you can report about the crowd an its responses to the answers. (Rememeber, this will be on TV too.)

Here's some background on Gov. Schweitzer:

Here's some background on his Republican challenger:

Here's some background on third-party candidate, Stan Jones, a Libertarian:

Monday, September 08, 2008

Tonight's Agenda

For those of you who couldn't find it over the weekend, here you go.

Tips for Writing on Deadline

1. Have a good idea of what the story might be before you begin your reporting. That way you're thinking about potential ledes from the start.

2. As you're taking notes, mark passages or quotations that support the potential ledes rolling around in your head.

3. When you start to write, see how far you can get without looking at your notes. Then go through the notes to fill in the blanks for quotes, examples, etc.

Ask Tax Man: What are Property Taxes?

I'm so glad you asked. It’s important to understand how property taxes work because they’re the biggest source of tax revenue for local governments (cities, counties and school districts). The state and feds rely more in income taxes.


Property taxes are based on a property’s value. Once the value is determined, local governments assess – or levy – something called a mill. Think of one mill as $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. (Another way to express it would be $.001 for every $1 of taxable value.)

Here’s how it works: If my home has a taxable value of $3,000 and the city decided to levy 100 mills, then my tax bill would be $300, or $100 for each thousand dollars of taxable value.

You can also see why actual tax bills vary around the city, though every pays the same 100 mills. Property values vary. The state calculates taxable values by looking at sale prices and then applying various deductions and tax rates that vary based on the type of property. For instance, in Montana homes and most businesses pay the same tax rate. Farmland and property owned by nonprofits pay a different rate.


First, the city adds up the taxable values of every piece of property within the city limits. Let’s say it’s $100, 000, 000. (That’s called the city’s tax base.) Then the city multiplies the tax base by the value of one mill ($.001). The result is how much city would raise for each mill it levies:

Our example:

$100,000,000 (total taxable value in the city) X .001(one mill’s value) = $100,000 (what one mill in taxes will raise citywide)

Let’s say the city decides it needs to raise $60 million. If you divide $60,000,000 by $100,000 (what one mill would raise) you get 600 mills. That means each property owner in the city would have to pay $600 for every $1,000 of their property’s taxable value.


1. More government spending. (New bond issues, inflation in the cost of services, shifts in state and federal spending.)
2. Higher property values. (Every few years the state reassesses all the property in Montana. It’s a nervous time.)


A person’s property tax bill includes mill levies from the city, the county, local school districts and even state government (mostly for education). We even pay special property taxes in our individual neighborhoods for things like street repairs, sidewalks, street lighting, etc. They call these SIDs, or Special Improvement Districts.


It's a public record.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Coming Soon: Justice Reporter Maurice Possley

Mark your calendars. On Monday, Sept. 15, we will meet from 2:10 to 3:30 p.m. in Room 316 to have a discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning criminal justice reporter Maurice Possley, formerly of the Chicago Tribune. Please click on the links at this site to read his work. Your assignment: Prepare at least three questions for him and post them as comments to this blog entry.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


For this week:

Your first beat stories are due to me by 5 p.m. Friday. Send them as WORD e-mail attachments, and follow the copy preparation rules (double-spaced body copy, white space at the top of the first page, etc.)

Also, this weekend, please check the City Council's agenda for Monday night. Click the links. Get as familiar as you can with the issues. Bring your questions to Monday's class.

Next week:

We're covering Monday night's City Council meeting for a midnight deadline.

You'll also be expected to write a story from your chosen beat.

Covering the City Beat

For the next few weeks we’ll be covering the City Beat and its most important institution, city government, which is responsible for:

Protecting the public – It enacts ordinances to control public behavior; funds, hires and manages police and fire departments; monitors local air and water quality; provides sanitary sewer service; identifies and fights health threats, oversees the building of roads, streets, sidewalks and street lighting; monitors and inspects building construction.

Planning for growth – It reviews and approves new subdivisions and the extension of city services; establishes what type of buildings can go where (zoning).

Enhancing the quality of life – Establishes and maintains parks; funds and directs recreation programs; sponsors and oversees public events (farmers’ markets, festivals and concerts).

Raising money to pay for all that – Plans for spending (builds a yearly budget), raises money through general property taxes (those everyone pays), special property taxes (those paid by a few for a special purpose like sidewalks), fees (building permits, business licenses, development fees), and grants or loans from state or federal governments.


The city hires professionals and lumps them into departments to oversee all of these activities.

Voters also elect a mayor to ensure that the departments are doing their jobs. In Missoula the mayor also presides over City Council meetings.

Voters two people from each of six districts, or wards, to sit on the City Council. The 12-member council makes the big decisions on services, growth and taxes. The council consists of several committees that study different needs and make recommendations to the full council.

The council meets every Monday (except for holidays and fifth Mondays of each month) to conduct public hearings and make decisions on items brought to it by its committees, the mayor and residents. An agenda is posted at least two days before each meeting so residents and city officials alike can prepare to participate.


Give residents information they need to understand and participate in decisions that could affect their well-being. Be watching for impacts on services and taxes

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Beat Assignments

Here's a list of beat assigments based on your requests. There's still time to change your mind, however. No one picked natural resouces/environment so that's still available.

The beats:

1. Justice I (cops and misdemeanor courts) -- Gerrity, Garcia

2. Justice II (state and federal district courts) -- Arneson, Gundlach

3. K-12 education (Missoula public schools) -- McLean, Whalen

4. Politics (2008 election) -- Dusek

5. Public health -- Klein, Gallagher

6. Higher education -- Maier

7. Minorities -- Rawn, deBouver

8. City and county government --Braaten

9. Natural resources/environment -- Roussi
10. Engergy/transportation -- Pulliam

Monday, August 25, 2008

Welcome to Public Affairs Reporting, Fall '08

Here are your first assigments:

A. By midnight tonight, send me the story from the short speech I gave in class. Send it as a Word attachment to

B. By 9 a.m. Tuesday, send me an e-mail with your first and second choices for a beat to cover. I’ll let you know your assigned beat by the day’s end. (Make sure you use your grizmail account.)

The choices are:

1. Local government: How are city and county governments dealing with issues such as public safety, transportation, growth? How are your readers affected? Read: Governing. Major institutions: City Council, County Commission.

2. K-12 education: Tens of thousands of Montanans are either enrolled in local schools or have children attending them. All of us pay tax to support the schools. What are children learning? How are they performing? Is the education community meeting students’ needs in the 21st century? What educational controversies do schools face? Are schools spending taxpayers’ money productively? Read: Education Week. Major institutions: Missoula County Public Schools.

3. Higher education: As consumers of higher ed, you have a vested interest in how the system works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be). Follow the changes and controversies: cost, access, changes in administration, curriculum, interaction with societal issues and controversies. How are colleges performing? Read: The Chronicle of Higher Education. Major institutions: UM, ASUM.

4. Justice I: You’ll cover breaking crime and disaster news in the Missoula area. This beat involves making the rounds constantly. Major institutions: Missoula Police Department, Campus Safety, Missoula County sheriff’s Department, Missoula Fire Department, Municipal (city) and Justice (county) courts.

5. Justice II: You cover cases in district (state) and federal courts. How is justice being served? What’s happening in newsworthy criminal cases? Who’s suing whom in civil cases? Major institutions: Missoula County District Courts (We have four district judges who handle cases involving violations of state law or civil cases between Montanans.) We have a federal courthouse with a U.S. district judge and a U.S. magistrate. (They handle cases involving violations of federal laws and suits between citizens of different states or against federal agencies.)

6. Public health: You’ll cover issues of interest to the public health, like outbreaks of disease, new diseases (West Nile) or health trends of concern (obesity, smoking, etc). You cover changes and controversies in the local health care system (access to services, costs, changes and trends in treatment options). Read: The Nation’s Health ( Major institutions: City-County Health Department, St. Patrick Hospital, Community Memorial Hospital, UM’s Curry Health Center.

7. Natural resources, the environment: You’ll look for local angles to environmental controversies such as climate change, air and water quality and the health of forests, grasslands and wildlife habitat (wildfires). Read: High Country News ( Major institutions: U.S. Forest Service, the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, city air and water quality officials, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Lots of environmetal organizations too: Clark Fork Coalition, Five Valleys Land Trust, Friends of the Bitterroot, Wilderness Society, etc.

8. Energy/transportation: This beat gets more important with every jump in gas prices. What’s happening with access to and costs of energy? Utility rates? What’s new in alternative fuels? Public transportation? Alternative modes of transportation? What’s happening to roads and runways? Access and cost of air, rail or bus travel, etc. Read:
Major institutions: Mountain Line, Missoula International Airport, local and state street and highway departments, federal Department of Energy, Northwestern energy.

9. Undercovered communities: Think of it as the minorities/civil rights beat. What sort of discrimination do you see? What stories are NOT being told about minority communities? You should find a lot of stories among not only racial and ethnic minorities but with the disabled, religious minorities, fringe political or social organizations, gay, lesbian and transgender people, etc.

10. Politics: You’ll be covering elections, and there are a million ways to do it. We have local contests galore and you can find local election angles to national campaigns as well. Read: Local, state and national election news. Major institutions: Local party central committees, county election officials (they run the elections), Montana Secretary of State, Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, Federal Election Commission, etc.